Before an Auburn home game, some 87,000 fans look to the sky for a beloved tradition: The university’s golden eagle—currently Aurea, War Eagle VIII—takes a victory-inducing lap around Jordan-Hare Stadium as the crowd sends up a howl, “Waaaaaaar Eagle!”
“War Eagle is the battle cry—not the motto or the logo or the mascot, but the battle cry—for the Auburn Tigers,” explains Wayne Flynt, history department professor emeritus. “The symbolism and the pageantry of the eagle come together in this magnificent opening to every football game.” And the colorful legend behind the eagle’s flight harkens back to one of the first football games in the South.
The myth: It’s 1892, and Auburn professor and football coach George Petrie has organized a game between Auburn and the University of Georgia, in Atlanta. It’s a fight till the end, and as the clock is running out, Auburn starts to advance down the field. In the crowd, there’s an Alabama Civil War veteran who for thirty years has kept an eagle that he found on a battlefield and nursed back to health. As Auburn marches toward the end zone, the eagle escapes and begins to circle the stadium to cries of “War Eagle!” Auburn scores. The eagle, for its part, promptly crashes into the field and dies, having given its spirit and life for the victory.
Flynt (and the Auburn website) will be the first to tell you that the story didn’t happen—there’s no record of it whatsoever—but if you’re looking for fact, you’re missing the point. “I’ve always taken the view that mythology can be just as powerful a source of meaning as fact,” he says. “The fact that there was no eagle who did a death crash at the moment of victory isn’t as meaningful as the fact that the story as created has a meaning that is essential to the identity of who an Auburn person is.”
In the case of the living, breathing War Eagles, they are taken care of by Auburn’s Southeastern Raptor Center, part of the university’s veterinary program. There have been eight to date, if you count the mythical one, which of course, everyone does. The first real one was rescued from a tangle of pea vines in 1930. Cheerleaders brought it to a Thanksgiving Day game against the University of South Carolina and the luck of its presence, legend says, ended Auburn’s losing streak that year. Except for the first and last few, they’ve all been named Tiger, a nod to the mascot.
As Flynt clarifies, “Tiger and War Eagle aren’t in competition; they are parallel representatives of the Auburn spirit. The tiger is the mascot, but the identification is War Eagle.” As such, War Eagle serves as the university greeting. While lecturing abroad, Flynt has donned his Auburn hat or sweater and has had fellow War Eagles hail him in the streets from China to the Czech Republic. “When you say ‘War Eagle’ to someone, it’s like saying, you’re part of my family.”
This article is part of a G&G series that decodes widely used but little understood phrases in college football.